GREENFIELD — Though countless studies have shown married couples live longer, that wasn’t necessarily the case for Clara Carl’s husbands.
Neither of them, it seems, survived her.
Hancock County’s original Black Widow, Philadelphia resident Clara Carl, convicted of second-degree murder by a Shelby County jury in 1922, will be featured this fall on Investigation Discovery’s “Deadly Women” series for the Discovery Channel.
Australia-based Beyond Productions visited Greenfield last week to unearth details of the case with Hancock County Historical Society President Brigette Cook Jones.
“This was huge news,” Jones said. “It was reported by newspapers all over the country.”
One possible reason for Carl’s broad appeal may have been that she had husbands buried all over the Midwest.
“She’s been in the backwater for a while,” said county historian Joe Skvarenina. But this fall the entire country – or at least those following the Discovery Channel’s seventh season of the series – can relive the life of a woman who “was rotten to the core.”
At least that’s the way Hancock County Prosecutor Waldo Ging felt about her in 1922, according to newspaper accounts.
Carl’s were the “most heinous crimes ever committed in this community and were carefully planned and carried out,” Ging told the Hancock County Democrat, which followed Carl’s arrest and trial with the appropriate journalistic zeal of the day.
Though Carl may have dropped off the local radar all these years, her story is now ripe for television, if one is interested in what motivates the cold heart.
“The series explores the psychology behind why women commit homicides,” said Dora Weekley, Beyond Productions’ producer for the visiting crew.
Already on the road for weeks and traveling America’s heartland until early March, Weekley and her crew have been researching, interviewing and catching snippets of local flavor for the upcoming series.
Based on Jones’ and Skvarenina’s research, Carl’s motive was simple and straightforward, it seems.
First husband, Robert Gibson, one-time newspaper editor in Rush County and traveling writer of county histories, died unexpectedly while in Missouri after he purchased a 10-acre farm in Philadelphia – on the National Road – in his wife’s name.
Three months later, according to local papers, Carl remarried and promptly dispatched her father-in-law, who possessed significant real estate holdings that passed to his son, Frank.
When Frank died just two months after his father in August 1921, the situation became more than the good people of Philadelphia could tolerate, and local tongues began wagging in overdrive.
“She told neighbors, ‘There’s not one way to get rid of a husband,’” Skvarenina said.
What investigators found, once the bodies were exhumed and examined, was that Frank and his father had been poisoned with arsenic, Jones said.
With continued prosecutorial aplomb, Ging let it be known to local news reporters that Frank’s body contained “enough poison to kill a dozen persons.”
So much for sitting a jury in Hancock County. The venue was moved south to Shelby County, where Early’s Drug Store clerk Rhoda Loehr testified she remembered selling Clara some arsenic just a few weeks prior to Frank’s death, allegedly, Clara said, to solve a problem she was having with a cat and her chickens.
“The defense tried to portray her as a defenseless woman, but that didn’t work out too well,” Skvarenina said.
Carl was convicted and promptly given a life sentence to serve in Indianapolis, where she just as promptly jumped a fence while feeding more chickens, Jones said. She was re-apprehended and did her time peacefully until 1937, when she apparently convinced authorities she was too sick to remain behind bars, Jones said.
However, she was healthy enough and managed to live until 1946, when she was released from probation and perhaps slid quietly from the scene to Carthage, Texas, Jones said.
From there Clara’s trail cools, but recently Jones received a call from Greenlawn Cemetery just outside Nelsonville, Ohio.
With little record of her being interred there, a Clara Winters (that was Carl’s maiden name) now rests beside her first husband, Robert, Jones said.
Maybe time’s passing revealed that money wasn’t, after all, everything. Maybe Carl was drawn to spend eternity with the man that purchased the peaceful little farm for her in Philadelphia. Maybe she just didn’t like Texas.
Not that she was the emotional type.
“Clara never showed any remorse at all,” Jones said.